Hunanese salted chiles (and a very good tofu recipe)

red chiles

red chiles

I haven’t had much experience with curing, souring or fermenting things at home – I tried making preserved lemons once but it didn’t work particularly well – and it’s something I’ve been wanting to learn more about. Hunanese salted chiles, a key ingredient in the cookbook I’ve been working through, sounded like a good way to ease into things – sort of a lazy girl’s kim chee. It’s nothing but chiles and salt, does not need special attention or preserving techniques, and is very good to eat. It ages for two weeks in a cool place – I just stuck the jar on a pantry shelf in my basement, which stays near 55° all winter – then keeps indefinitely in the fridge. Although I can tell our jar of chiles isn’t going to have the opportunity to stick around very long.

salted chiles

It really is a simple recipe. The hardest part by far was actually getting hold of a pound of ripe red chiles in the middle of winter. We had to wait until we made a trip to the produce section of Uwajimaya in Seattle, where they had an excellent selection of what they called “red jalapeños” but most stores just refer to as Fresno chiles. They’re not an extremely spicy pepper but they’re very sweet and fruity, and all these flavors really came out in the preserving process. The final product is actually quite spicy, but also sweet and surprisingly silky in the mouth. I think they’re wonderful – hot, sour, salty and sweet, all in one condiment. This will become a pantry staple for us.

chiles and salt

Hunanese chopped salted chiles

from Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province by Fuchsia Dunlop

  • 1 lb fresh red chiles
  • 1/4 cup salt

Cut off the stem and tip of each chile and coarsely chop them, including the seeds.

Combine the chopped chiles in a bowl with 3 ½ tbsp of the salt, mix well, place in a very clean glass jar and top with the remaining salt. Seal and put in a cool place for a couple of weeks before using, then refrigerate once opened. Will keep for months.

chiles two ways

What to do with the chiles once they’re done? As far as I can tell, anything that you would use either fresh chiles or chile paste for. I used them in place of fresh red chiles when I made red-braised tofu a couple of weeks ago, I threw a spoonful into a bowl of dan dan noodles, and last night I made a Hunanese dish of pork and tofu that really showcased the chiles.

I’ve made this recipe twice so far. The first time I didn’t have the salted chiles so I doubled the chile bean paste (as Dunlop suggests), and I used fresh shiitakes instead of dried. This time I did use dried mushrooms, and was frankly amazed at the flavor they gave to the sauce. I’ll need to keep dried shiitakes on hand from now on. And while the recipe was good with just the chile bean paste, it was worlds better with the salted chiles – more depth, sweetness, heat and just generally tastier. I nearly licked out the wok.

homestyle bean curd with pork

Homestyle Bean Curd

adapted from Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook: Recipes from Hunan Province by Fuchsia Dunlop

  • 2 dried shiitakes
  • 1 block tofu, cut into slices or cubes (whatever type of tofu you like – I only use silken these days)
  • 1 boneless pork loin chop, cut into thin slices
  • 1 tsp Shaoxing wine or sherry
  • 1 Tbsp chile bean paste
  • 1 Tbsp chopped salted chiles
  • 1 Tbsp chopped garlic
  • 1 cup stock
  • 1/4 tsp soy sauce
  • spoonful of cornstarch mixed with two spoonfuls of cold water
  • 3 scallions
  • 1 tsp sesame oil
  • peanut oil or lard

Soak the mushrooms in hot water 30 minutes. Drain, remove the stems, and thinly slice.

Mix  the sliced pork with Shaoxing wine in a bowl. Set aside.

If you want the tofu to be a bit firmer, fry the slices until golden in a bit of peanut oil or lard. Set aside. I sometimes skip this step if I’m in the mood for soft-textured tofu.

Heat a bit of oil in a wok until very hot. Stir-fry the pork until the pieces separate, add the chile paste and salted chiles and stir well, then the garlic and mushrooms. Pour in the stock and bring to a simmer.

Add the tofu and soy and bring the liquid to a boil. Stir in the cornstarch mixture and cook until it begins to thicken, then add the scallions and sesame oil. Serve with plenty of rice to soak up the sauce.

silken tofu

pork

red chiles

salted chiles

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red cooked tofu

stewing

Our last trip to Seattle’s International District yielded a number of interesting ingredients, many of which I have yet to try. I did pull out the package of deep fried bean curd last week, and tried out another recipe from – can you guess? – Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook. It was extremely delicious, even though I have a feeling the fried tofu I bought somehow isn’t quite the right kind.

fried tofu

It was in the refrigerator case at Uwajimaya, next to the bean curd sheets. It seemed to be the right product until I opened it, but instead of puffs, the tofu was sort of in layers. It had a way cool chewy texture, though, and nice bean curd-y flavor. We were also really pleased with the sauce, which was completely simple to make and had a surprisingly rich taste, with lots of zing from the ginger and chile. It was rather soupy and made a delicious porridge in the bottom of our rice bowls. I totally want to do this again with the puffy tofu, if I can find it.

Also, this was our first foray into the jar of salted chiles I’ve had fermenting over the last couple of weeks. They were excellent – I’ll tell you more about them soon. You don’t need them for this recipe, though, it actually just calls for fresh hot chile.

red cooked fried tofu

Zhangguying red-braised bean curd puffs

Adapted from Revolutionary Chinese Cookbook by Fuchsia Dunlop

Dunlop mentions that the recipe could be started by stir-frying pork slices in the wok before continuing with the other ingredients. I bet a little ground pork would be excellent here as well. But it makes a great meat-free meal.

  • 2-3 Tbsp lard or peanut oil
  • 9 oz deep fried bean curd puffs (or whatever kind of deep-fried tofu you can find)
  • 3 garlic cloves, sliced
  • 1 inch ginger, sliced
  • 3 cups stock (I used homemade chicken stock)
  • soy sauce (to taste)
  • 1 fresh chile, sliced (I substituted a spoonful of salted chiles)
  • 5 scallions, cut into lengths
  • 1 tsp cornstarch and 2 tsp water

Cut the tofu into bite-size chunks. If it’s very oily, pat it a bit with paper towels.

Heat peanut oil or lard in a wok, add the garlic and ginger and stir-fry briefly, then pour in the stock. Bring to a boil and add some soy sauce and the tofu. Reduce and simmer gently for 5-10 minutes. Add the chile and scallions and cook for just a moment more. Taste for seasoning and adjust if necessary.

Mix the cornstarch and water in a small bowl, bring the sauce in the wok to a full boil, and swirl in the cornstarch mixture. When the sauce has thickened slightly, remove from the heat and serve with rice or noodles.

hot and sour

hot and sour soup

We recently made hot and sour soup for the first time, and I can’t imagine why I waited this long. It was prompted by the annual advent of scallion-chive flatbreads, since the chives are shooting up in the garden and we happened to have a bag of cilantro in the fridge, and nothing goes better with these breads than soup. We just picked up a used copy of The Wisdom of the Chinese Kitchen by Grace Young, and I pulled this recipe out more or less at random. It looked simple and fast, useful features when you’re also making involved flatbreads.

I followed it pretty closely, while leaving out the lily buds, adding a bit of extra pork, and using the pre-shredded black fungus that we’ve become addicted to instead of whole cloud ears. The soup is heated with white pepper and soured with cider vinegar, and the main complaints we had were the lack of salt (fixed with a dab of soy sauce after serving) and the dullness of the vinegar flavor, apparently due to adding it early in the cooking process. When we ate the leftovers I added a bit of fresh vinegar and it was much peppier. But other than that it was really good – soothing and very textural, and the breads (which I made with hot chile oil and plenty of salt) were fantastic dipped into it.

scallion-chive bread

I think we’ll try a variation on the recipe soon – maybe Barbara Tropp’s version which uses rice vinegar and soy. Does anyone have a recipe for hot and sour soup they really like? I think this could become part of our regular rotation.

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triple pepper tofu

triple pepper tofu

This recipe is a real blast from the past for us. A standby from The Enchanted Broccoli Forest (the original recipe is called Szechwan Tofu Triangles in Triple Pepper Sauce), Jon used to cook this for me when we were going out in college. We stopped making it for a long time, then suddenly felt the urge to try it again. It may not be very authentic, but it’s really pretty tasty. The “triple pepper” refers to the inclusion of bell pepper, hot red pepper, and black pepper, although in our latest version we added a fourth – Sichuan pepper. It adds that peculiar mouth-numbing quality that some of us go for in our stir-fries.

peppers & scallions

Any sort of sweet pepper will do here, but if you have a mix of colors it makes it particularly pretty.

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new & improved peanut sauce

tofu and broccoli with peanut sauce

A while back I wrote about tofu with broccoli and peanut sauce. One of our favorite easy weeknight meals, it has evolved through various permutations, and I really like where it is right now. We’ve actually eaten it twice in the last two weeks – partly because Jon is still on meds that don’t allow alcohol, so we’ve been having a lot of things that go with Oolong tea, but also because it’s really, really good.

My current approach is to sear cubes of silken tofu in peanut oil until hot and crispy on the outside, piling it onto bowls of brown rice with steamed broccoli (we do still make it with buckwheat soba occasionally, but it gets extra gooey – brown rice is easier to mix). Over this goes my new favorite peanut sauce, which I found in Deborah Madison’s book on tofu. It’s easy to mix up from pantry ingredients (as long as you keep Chinese black vinegar in your pantry), which makes it a great emergency recipe. We always have a few boxes of silken tofu on hand these days for just these occasions.

I can’t really explain why this combination of flavors is so good, but you’ll have to take my word for it. Everything gets combined in the bowl, creating a rich, salty-sour-hot amalgam of good things. Try  it!

Peanut Sauce

adapted from This Can’t Be Tofu! by Deborah Madison

  • 1/2 cup creamy unsweetened peanut butter (I use Adams)
  • 1 clove garlic, minced or pressed
  • 3 Tbsp soy sauce
  • 2 Tbsp Chinkiang vinegar
  • 1 Tbsp sugar
  • 1-2 Tbsp Sambal Oelek or other hot chili sauce
  • hot water

Mix together the peanut butter, garlic, soy, vinegar, sugar and hot sauce until combined. Add hot water until it reaches the consistency you want. Taste and adjust seasonings as necessary.

ma po tofu

ma po tofu

We had been doing so well on our self-imposed mission to eat tofu once a week. Not that I really think soy is particularly beneficial (the jury still seems to be out on that one), but we do eat a fair amount of meat, and I try to work in other sources of protein when convenient. Besides, tofu is cheap. We recently discovered silken tofu in boxes that keeps on the shelf for several weeks, so now we can stock up and have it ready to hand. Lately, though, we’ve slacked off on our tofu consumption.

tofu soak

After a few weeks of somewhat disorganized menu planning, I remembered that there was a box of silken tofu in the cupboard getting past its sell-by date, and a recipe for Ma Po Tofu in our Sichuan cookbook that hadn’t yet been tried, so that’s what we had for dinner one night after work. It was incredibly quick and easy, so I suspect we’ll have it again before too long.

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tofu is delicious food

tofu
tofu

We don’t have tofu at home real often – I usually get my fix ordering it deep-fried in Thai restaurants – but when we do, one of my favorite ways to eat it is with broccoli and peanut sauce. I remember we made a sort-of version of this back in college, when I lived in a vegan interest house on the edge of campus. One day we discovered we had left our shipment of tofu out on the porch…in Minnesota. In January. In case you haven’t done this yourself, let me tell you that frozen tofu takes on a really interesting texture, kind of like a hardened sponge. It’s not entirely unpleasant, and actually it was such a nice change from the usual that we all got very enthusiastic about it for a while. Anyway, we would cut it into cubes and toss it up with broccoli and peanut butter and rice, and it was good and more filling than a lot of the things we cooked in that house (I often had to eat a peanut butter sandwich after dinner just to get through the night).

soba
soba with tofu and broccoli

My current version is, I hope, a little more carefully put together. We only recently discovered how good buckwheat soba is in this dish, but I like it a lot – the creamy sauce and tofu against the earthy bite of the noodles is great. Brown rice works well, too. Continue reading